- The Washington Times - Friday, September 4, 2009

U.S. Forest Service executives were starkly warned just weeks before the California wildfires ignited that they risked losing the ability to fight future blazes by air because they had been unable to devise a politically acceptable plan to replace half-century-old aerial tankers that soon will be unworthy for flight.

“If [Forest Service] does not make a convincing case, Congress and [White House Office of Management and Budget] may not give funding support for replacing aging aircraft, which may weaken future firefighting effectiveness and firefighter safety,” the Agriculture Department’s inspector general told the agency in a July report, which was reviewed by The Washington Times.

For decades, the massive aerial tankers have been one of the government’s iconic weapons against forest fires, soaring past mountains and though plumes of smoke to drop thousands of gallons of retardant chemicals that suppress the brush-consuming flames.

But more than half of the agency’s fleet was grounded in 2004 for safety reasons and the remaining 19 tankers are between 40 and 60 years old and are expected to be either unworthy for flight or too expensive to operate as early as 2012. The agency began an effort in 2005 to secure funding for new aircraft but has yet to work out a plan that could win either executive branch or congressional approval.

The inspector general’s report implored a sense of urgency and criticized the agency for not having the political skills to make its case.

The tankers are “key resources because they can fly to remote areas and quickly contain small fires before they become larger, costlier and more dangerous,” the watchdog said.

Forest Service officials said Thursday that they were doing the best they can to keep the current fleet operational and safe, but that new purchases were imperative.

“We take every precaution to make sure the planes are safe to fly,” said Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation management for the Forest Service. “They are getting old. They are not a solution for the future.”

Mr. Harbour said he agreed with nearly all of the recommendations of the audit and that he would use them to help make the best case possible for modernizing the Forest Service aircraft fleet.

Agriculture Department Inspector General Phyllis K. Fong, the independent watchdog for the Forest Service, has been expressing concern about the safety of the air tankers. She told Congress in March that the fleet was between 40 and 60 years old and “accumulating flight hours at a rate four to five times greater than the annual rate air tankers experienced 30 years ago.”

“Under these circumstances, even the best air safety program cannot reasonably be expected to to be able to continue to protect the public and FS employees from accidents,” she said.

Getting new planes is just another headache for the Forest Service, which — according to members of Congress — is turning into the fire service because nearly half of the agency’s budget now goes to fighting forest fires.

The federal government — the Forest Service and the Department of Interior — spend $2 billion a year fighting wildfires — up from $200 million about a decade ago.

The fire in the Angeles National Forest in California is only the latest in a string of serious fires the Forest Service has had to deal with in recent years.

The aging air tankers are one of the Forest Service’s key firefighting tools. according to the audit and Mr. Harbour. The tankers spray flame retardant. which slows a fire’s growth. The retardant also lowers the intensity of the fires to allow for firefighters to get close and put them out. The tankers are most effective at containing fires in their initial stage, according to the audit.

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